Why do Catholics pray to saints?

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“Saints, preserve us!” That’s what one of my school teachers would exclaim when she was exasperated with our fourth-grade antics and lack of academic discipline. Another teacher told us that if we had a really special prayer, we should offer it to Mary, the Mother of God, because Jesus could never refuse a request from his mother—as evidenced by the miracle at Cana. My grandmother, when she was searching for lost car keys, would offer a quick prayer to St. Anthony, who is the patron of lost items. And one of my good friends—a professor of theology and a former Roman Catholic priest—is known to utter this poetic plea for mercy to St. Thérèse when searching in vain for a parking space at the mall during high-shopping season: “Little Flower, in this hour, show your power.”

Is all this really “Christian”?

If you grew up Catholic, none of this will seem strange to you. If you didn’t grow up Catholic, however, it can all seem a bit odd. The vast roster of saints and the sometimes particular prayers that get floated up to them are curious to some and disconcerting to others. The peculiar petitionary practice of calling upon the saints leads some to wonder if Catholics are really heeding the true teaching of the apostles that Jesus is the only mediator between God and us.

The answer to this is very simple, if not always satisfying. Catholics do believe that we pray only in Christ. But our communion with Christ extends throughout the entire church, which is his Body. We believe that when a member of the church dies, he or she is not separated from us but remains very much in communion with Christ and therefore the entire Body of Christ. We call all those who are in communion with Christ the “communion of saints.”

So when we pray to Mary and the saints, we are merely asking our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for us—just as I might ask you to pray for me if I had something important that I wanted to bring to God. That explanation, as I said, is unsatisfying to some because Catholics sometimes go to seemingly great lengths to offer their prayers to particular saints while they may not so clearly be identifying Christ as the true mediator of their prayer. Why not just pray directly to Jesus? some will ask us.

Joining a circle of hope

A cloud of witnesses
The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2683

Well, of course we should (and do!) pray directly to Jesus. But praying to Jesus does not eliminate the possibility of asking others to join us in our prayer. I have a very good friend who is dying of cancer. I pray for her to Jesus, I pray to Mary, I ask all my friends to pray, and I ask the circle of saints in heaven to pray for her as well. God isn’t going to “answer” my prayer based on how many saints—living and in heaven—I’ve lined up on my prayer team. God will answer my prayer in the way that best aligns with God’s will for my friend. But knowing that both she and I can access a community of supernatural support reminds us we are not alone. Feeling the power of prayer pulsing through our extended community of faith—both in heaven and on earth—assures us that sickness and death have no more power over us. Joining with the communion of saints in prayer gives witness to the fact that we are never alone—even in death.

It might be a leap to see such a profound understanding of faith in a silly ditty routinely uttered when searching for a parking space. But routine prayer for apparently insignificant things grounds us in a discipline of faith that gives us certain hope in those moments when we might be most tempted to despair.

A simple way to ask for prayers

If you never pray to a saint and you always pray only to Jesus, there is nothing wrong with that. But you might find it a source of comfort and strength to join the communion of saints to your prayer on occasion. A very simple prayer that is a beautiful example of our Catholic understanding of asking a saint to pray for us is the “Hail Mary.” If you like, try praying that prayer every morning for the next seven days. And if that seems a bit too much, just call out, “Saints, preserve us!” next time life gets a little overwhelming.

What do you think?

Have you ever wondered why Catholics pray to Mary and the saints?

Do you have a favorite saint? Have you ever asked that saint to pray for you?

Do you have a serious issue in your life right now that you need prayers for? If you feel up to it, share your need in the comments box, and we’ll all pray for you.

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